For years, this was the season frustrated Giants fans had counted down to. The final year of the albatross of a contract Barry Zito signed prior to the 2007 season.
All these years later, it’s still tough to mention Zito in any sentence without also bringing up the hefty $126 million deal he inked.
And as Zito piled up disappointing year after disappointing year, it seemed inevitable his Giants tenure would be over the second the clock struck midnight after this season.
But 2012 changed that narrative a bit. Being a key contributor on a club’s second World Series championship in the past three seasons has a tendency to do that.
As Giants pitchers and catchers report to spring training today for the 2013 season, much of the attention will be focused on Tim Lincecum and his new adolescent-looking haircut entering the final year of a two-year, $40 million deal. But Zito’s situation also has to be a focal point, and it’s entirely plausible that this won’t be his last hurrah in The City.
While he’s been booed more often than he has been cheered in San Francisco — and the majority of the time it has been justified — he has carved out a role with the Giants.
It has become abundantly clear Zito will never be the ace the Giants were hoping for when he came over from the A’s. But luckily for the Giants, they don’t need him to be that. They have Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Lincecum, prior to 2012 at least, to fill that role.
Zito just needs to be a fifth starter — and as a fifth starter, he has value. Not $126 million worth of value, but value nonetheless.
The left-hander went 15-8 with a 4.16 ERA last season, his first winning campaign in his San Francisco tenure. He was also terrific in the postseason, compiling a sparkling 1.69 ERA in 16 innings. Those are stats pretty much any team in baseball would take out of a fifth starter.
The soon-to-be 35-year-old, who always has come off as a team-first guy, has proven to be extremely durable over his career, only missing significant time once (2011) in his 13-year career.
On the flip side, you could always end up with bad Barry. And bad Barry was 43-61 in his first five Giants seasons: nibbles around the strike zone, walking too many batters and a tendency to leave a curve ball up in the zone that gets tattooed over the AT&T Park wall.
Now, if bad Barry shows up in 2013, it’s sayonara for Zito in S.F. The Giants can buy him out after the season for $7 million unless he throws 200 innings, in which an $18 million option vests.
But if he can go out and post a record around .500 with an ERA in the neighborhood of 4.00, he deserves to be back. Granted, it should only be on a one- or two-year deal at a significantly reduced price than the $20 million he’ll make this season, but he should be back.
And that’s a far cry from where Zito stood just a year ago.
Dylan Kruse is the sports editor of The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @dylan_kruse.